Worldwide, nearly 1 billion children have had their schools close due to the COVID-19 outbreak. As of March 18, 43 states in the U.S. had turned to remote learning (Economist, 2020). With schools across the country closing, students and their families face unprecedented challenges. Not only do these closures lead to subpar and inconsistent education, they also lead to a disruption of student services provided by schools.
Roughly 26 million U.S. students rely on school for free and reduced-price lunches (Economist, 2020), and although many districts have established meal pick-up programs, not all have. Just as concerning as physical wellbeing is the emotional and psychological support that is fundamentally altered as a result of school closures and distance learning. School social workers and teachers who check in on students at risk of abuse or neglect at home are no longer able to do so (Lynch & Wolfe, 2020). Instead, students and their providers are engaging each other remotely, cutting out direct human contact.
The efficacy of virtual learning aside, online classes means that because students are engaged via the internet, in-person contact is limited. As a result, school social workers and counselors have lost their primary means of engaging students – in-person. Although it is possible to hold counseling sessions through Zoom or over the phone, remote sessions cannot fully take the place of live engagement, interacting with other people in the same physical space. It becomes increasingly difficult to identify depression and anxiety, learning differences, and behavior challenges when the primary means of social worker-student contact is over the internet. At the same time, remote learning may exacerbate these struggles for some students.
Even more problematic is that about 7 million school-age kids in the U.S. do not have internet access from home (Economist, 2020). This means that for the fraction of these 7 million students who receive academic and non-academic support at school, video-conferencing into sessions poses an even greater challenge, one that requires these students to access the internet from a friend’s house or public library; this is assuming that libraries remain open and that the student has the means to travel to them.
On March 21, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance indicating that a district’s inability to provide full online services to students with disabilities should not prevent it from providing online learning opportunities to all of its students (U.S. Department of Education, 2020). This directive implicitly acknowledges that students with disabilities may not continue to receive the services to which they are entitled and on which they rely.
It is clear, then, that as physical health takes priority, new approaches are needed to continue providing support to students who depend on being in school for social services. Social workers are unable to provide in-class assessments, be available for drop-in counseling or crisis management, and provide essential emotional and psychological support that is most effective in-person. Although there may be no alternative while school districts embrace social distancing, the result is that students are suffering and underserved.
COVID-19 has caused a shift in society that places physical health above all. In the process, education delivery and school-provided support have changed dramatically. Many people predict the future of education is online. If this expectation is to become reality, we need to rethink how school social services are delivered online and ensure student wellbeing is prioritized.
The Economist. (2020, March 19). Mid-term break: How covid-19 is interrupting children’s education. https://www.economist.com/international/2020/03/19/how-covid-19-is-interrupting-childrens-education
Lynch, S. N., & Wolfe, J. (2020, March 21). Social work from a social distance: Coronavirus forces U.S. child advocates to adapt. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-social-workers/social-work-from-a-social-distance-coronavirus-forces-u-s-child-advocates-to-adapt-idUSKBN2180FE
U.S. Department of Education. (2020, March 21). Supplemental fact sheet: Addressing the risk of COVID-19 in preschool, elementary and secondary schools while serving children with disabilities. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/frontpage/faq/rr/policyguidance/Supple%20Fact%20Sheet%203.21.20%20FINAL.pdf?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=